Editor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan, Just Security is publishing a series of essays on the developments of the last year and the prospects for the future of Afghanistan. The series will continue over the coming weeks, and feature voices from Afghan civil society, U.S. national security experts, international human rights experts, and others.
On July 31, two Hellfire missiles fired from an American drone exploded in Kabul, my home city. Killed in the explosion was al-Qaeda leader and international fugitive Ayman al-Zawahiri, who reportedly had been living in Kabul since the spring.
These are the facts the world knows. What many fewer people know is this:
Zawahiri died while standing on the balcony of a building that is walking distance from the now-shuttered campus of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) – the Afghan girls’ school that I co-founded and led into exile nearly one year ago, a school of girls in grades pre-6 to 11 whose members represented every ethnic group in our nation, living and studying together as sisters.
A hunted terrorist’s shattered body in a mound of rubble. The silent halls of a campus that once rang with the laughter of almost 100 Afghan girls celebrating the joy to be found in their fundamental human right to education.
When you imagine the future of Afghanistan, a future that the international community will invariably play an active role in creating, imagine yourself looking down one long road that runs through Kabul. This same road runs through every city and village in my country. Its terminus points are always the same. At one end lies an unending reality of instability and terror and death. At its other is the dream of peace, prosperity, and equality—a dream now denied.
So come walk with me. Walk with Afghan women. Let us show you the dream we had, and let us show you how we’ve not stopped dreaming.
Start at SOLA’s campus. When I first wrote for Just Security last summer, I spoke about the virtuous circle that I and Afghan women like me were working to set into motion: a circle of educated women teaching girls who would become educated women teaching even more girls. What I couldn’t write about then, for security reasons, were SOLA’s plans to ensure that our role in creating this circle would not be interrupted.
Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021. Ten days later, the entire SOLA community – students, staff, family members, nearly 250 people in all – arrived safely in Kigali, Rwanda. The story of those days, and the months preceding them, is one that I’ll tell someday; today, I’ll say that you’re reading these words as our 2022 admissions season draws to its close. SOLA has found a home in Rwanda – a nation whose people have led it from the darkness of unspeakable violence to become a place of regional stability, and who have welcomed us with extraordinary warmth. We’ve settled in a new campus. The girls who come to us will be tomorrow’s leaders, ready to return to their communities to teach other girls – and as we establish our roots in Rwanda, we aren’t turning away from Afghanistan and the women and girls there.
In September, we will enroll a new class of Afghan girls drawn from the sudden diaspora created by the Taliban’s return to power last year, girls who departed Afghanistan with their families for an uncertain life in refugee communities. These girls have little to no chance of receiving an education in these communities. But they will with us.
They will because they have looked down that long road running through our homeland. So have their families. So have I. And so, from their end, have the Taliban.
The Taliban’s edict barring girls from education, their decrees aimed at giving men jurisdiction over the jobs women hold and the places women travel and the clothes women wear – these are as strategic as they are brutal. They know there is no hope for their regime’s longevity unless they break the virtuous circle that Afghan women have spent decades building.
And this is why they fear us. But we are not afraid of them.
Walk this road. You already know what you’ll see: girls in tears before the locked gates of their schools, and burqa-clad women sweeping silently past like so many blue ghosts, and women whose presence is marked by their absolute absence. They have vanished behind prison walls for having committed “moral crimes.” Their lives now are circumscribed by the four walls of their homes for having committed the crime of being women.
But look harder. Do you see the girls finding their way to secret schools, just the way I did when I was a child in the 1990s, under the Taliban’s first failed regime? Do you see the young women who are risking everything to teach these girls?
Do you see what they see, and I see, and all Afghan women see?
Educated girls become educated women, and educated women are the ones who will rebuild our nation. They will come from Kabul and from the provinces. They will come from Rwanda – I can promise you that. They are our people’s best hope of achieving peace and prosperity, and they are the international community’s best hope of arresting the momentum of Afghanistan’s long walk down a road that only ends in a return to the days of extremism and the horror of bomb blasts and missile strikes.
Afghan women are not waiting for your help. But Afghan women cannot succeed without it.
As I write this post, I watch the news from Kabul. I see women, their voices raised in protest. I see them attacked by the Taliban. I see them beaten by rifle butts, scattered by shots fired into the sky. I see the signs they carried torn and trampled underfoot. And I see the Taliban boast publicly of the “great achievements” their regime has brought us.
The road is real. It will not vanish if the world chooses not to see it, if the world chooses to look away.
But Afghan women might.